Succot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah

Rabbi Bernie Fox



“A lulav that is stolen or dried out is disqualified.”  (Tractate Succah 3:1)

One of the unique commandments of the festival of Succot is the requirement to take the four species.  The four species are the palm branch, citron, two willow branches, and three myrtle branches.  The mishne above explains that a lulav – a palm branch – that is dried-out is unacceptable.  The mishne does not provide a reason for this law.  However, Rashi explains that we are required to use a lulav that is beautiful, and one that is dried-out does not meet this requirement.  What is the source for the requirement that the lulav be beautiful?  Rashi suggests that the requirement is derived from the passage, “This is my

G-d and I will glorify Him.”[1]


Some background information is required to understand Rashi’s suggested derivation for this requirement.  In Tractate Shabbat, the Talmud explains that there is a general requirement to beautify mitzvot.  The Talmud derives this requirement from the passage quoted by Rashi – “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him.”[2]  The Talmud explains that we should beautify ourselves before Hashem with mitzvot.  The Talmud provides specific examples.  Our succah should be beautiful; our lulav should be beautiful; our tzitzit – the fringes we are required to place upon the corners of four-cornered garments – should be beautiful; a Sefer Torah should be beautiful.[3]  The Talmud is teaching us that we should not merely create a succah that meets the minimum requirements.  We should build a beautiful succah.  Similarly, when securing other objects that will be used in the performance of a commandment, we should not be satisfied with an object that meets the minimum specifications.  We should try to secure an object whose beauty surpasses these minimum requirements. 


Rashi’s comments seem to indicate that the dried-out lulav is disqualified because it does not meet the general requirement to beautify mitzvot.  Tosefot identify a number of difficulties with Rashi’s explanation.  We will focus on one of these objections.  Tosefot notes that the general requirement to beautify mitzvot – derived from “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him” – is not fundamental to fulfilling the commandment.  For example, if one builds a succah that meets the essential requirements, but does not fulfill the requirement of beautification of the commandment, one can still fulfill the mitzvah with this succah.  Tosefot offer an even more compelling example in order to prove their point.  The Talmud explains that the lulav, the willow branches, and the myrtle branches should be bound together.  The Talmud explains that this is an expression of the general requirement derived from the passage, “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him.”[4]  Nonetheless, if one does not bind these species together, one fulfills the commandment.  Clearly, even in the case of the four species, meeting the requirement of beautification is not essential to fulfilling the basic commandment.  Based on these two questions, Tosefot reject Rashi’s explanation for the disqualification of the dried-out lulav.[5] 


How can Rashi’s position be explained?  It is clear that Rashi must acknowledge that meeting the general requirement to beautify mitzvot is usually not essential to the fulfillment of the commandment.  But, Rashi seems to contend that in this case – the four species – this requirement is raised to a higher level and therefore, it becomes essential.  According to Rashi, why is the mitzvah of the four species special?


Are there any other instances in which meeting the requirement for beautification is essential?  There is one other instance in which fulfilling this requirement is essential.  The Talmud explains that in writing a Sefer Torah, the name of Hashem must be written with intention.  In other words, each time the scribe writes Hashem’s name, he must do so with the specific intention to write this name.  If this requirement is not fulfilled, the Sefer Torah is rendered invalid.  The Talmud asks whether there is a corrective measure that can be taken if the name of Hashem is written without the required intentions.  Can the scribe rewrite the name – with the required intention – over the existing letters that were inscribed without the required intention?  The Talmud rejects this solution.  So, even if the scribe rewrites the name over the unintended original letters, the Sefer Torah is not acceptable.  The Talmud continues to explain the basis for its position.  It comments that the Sefer Torah must meet the requirement of beautification expressed in the passage “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him.”  The rewriting of Hashem’s name will result in an inconsistent appearance.  The rewritten name of Hashem will be darker than the surrounding text.  This detracts from the appearance of the text and renders it invalid.[6]


It emerges that in some cases, beautification is essential and, in other cases, the basic mitzvah can be fulfilled without beautification.  How can this distinction be explained?  What determines whether the requirement of beautification is essential to the performance of the mitzvah?


Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l suggests an explanation for the law of the Sefer Torah.  He explains that the issue of whether beautification is essential is determined by the level of association between the object of the mitzvah and Hashem.  Most objects used in the performance of a mitzvah are only associated with Hashem, himself, in the sense that they are used to serve Him.  A succah is associated with Hashem because we use it to fulfill a mitzvah commanded by Him.  Let us compare this to the name of Hashem in a Sefer Torah.  The name of Hashem is not associated with Hashem merely because the Sefer Torah is used to serve Hashem.  The name is more directly associated with Hashem.  It is the word that we use to refer to Hashem.  Rav Soloveitchik suggests that the closeness of this association demands a higher degree of requirement for beautification.  The requirement of beautification is absolute.  It must be met in order for the commandment to be fulfilled.[7]


It should be noted that Rav Soloveitchik’s conclusion is very consistent with the passage.  The passage tells us that we must glorify Hashem.  Although this is accomplished through the beautification of mitzvot, the objective is to glorify Hashem.  The degree of association of the object with Hashem determines the level of the requirement of glorification.  The name of Hashem is directly associated with Him.  It follows that the requirement to glorify Him will express itself most fully – as an absolute requirement – in writing this name in a Sefer Torah.  The beautification of other objects used in mitzvot also glorifies Hashem.  However, the glorification is less direct.  This is because the object is only associated with Hashem because it is used in the performance of a mitzvah.  It is not a direct reference to Hashem.


Rav Soloveitchik’s comments explain the reason for an absolute requirement of beautification of the name of Hashem in a Sefer Torah.  How can this reasoning be applied to the lulav?  Rav Soloveitchik suggests that in order to answer this question, we must have a clearer understanding of the nature of the mitzvah of the four species.


Maimonides explains that the mitzvah of the four species is fulfilled with their lifting.  In other words, when a person lifts up the species, he has fulfilled the commandment.  However, the mitzvah is only fulfilled in its entirety when the species are waved during the recitation of the Hallel.[8]  Maimonides’ comments indicate that there is a fundamental relationship between the Hallel and the four species.  What is this relationship?  Hallel is composed of praise to Hashem.  The association of the four species with Hallel seems to indicate that the waving of the four species is an act of praise to Hashem.


This insight solves another problem.  We fulfill the mitzvah of the four species all seven days of the festival.  However, the Torah level obligation is limited to the first day. The Sages established the obligation to perform the mitzvah of the other six days of the festival.  However, in the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple – the Torah level obligation extends to all seven days of the festival.  The seven-day obligation in the Bait HaMikdash is expressed in the passage, “And you should rejoice before Hashem your G-d seven days.”[9]  Our Sages explained that the term “before Hashem” refers to the Bait HaMikdash.  The phrase “you should rejoice” refers to the performance of the mitzvah of the four species.  This raises an important question.  Why does the passage not make specific reference to the mitzvah of the four species?  Why does the passage replace a direct reference with the somewhat vague instruction to rejoice?


Rav Soloveitchik explains that this problem can be resolved based on a comment of Maimonides.  Maimonides explains that although we are required to rejoice on all festivals, this requirement is more extensive on Succot.  Maimonides explains that this obligation is fulfilled through the special services performed in the Bait HaMikdash all seven days of the festival.  In Maimonides’ description of these services, the main component is the singing of praises of Hashem.[10]  It is clear from Maimonides’ comments that rejoicing is primarily expressed through giving praise to Hashem. 


Based on Maimonides’ comments, we can reinterpret the passage above.  It is not merely telling us to rejoice in the Bait HaMikdash for the seven days of the festival.  It is instructing us to rejoice through offering praise to Hashem. 


As explained above, our Sages understood this requirement - to rejoice through praise - as the source for the mitzvah to perform the mitzvah of the seven species all seven days of the festival in the Bait HaMikdash.  This indicates that the mitzvah of the seven species is clearly an expression of praise to Hashem.  The Torah refers to the obligation to perform the mitzvah of the four species as an act of rejoicing in order to communicate the basic nature of the mitzvah. The Torah is teaching us that this mitzvah is an act of rejoicing – through offering praise to Hashem.


Rav Soloveitchik explains that the nature of the mitzvah of the four species accounts for the absolute requirement of beautification.  The mitzvah is essentially to praise Hashem through the four species.  It is only reasonable that an object used for the praise of Hashem should fulfill the requirement of, “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him.”  It is incomprehensible that an object lacking beauty should be acceptable as a vehicle of praise.[11]  This is consistent with the general principle of beautification.  The closer an object is associated with Hashem, the more stringent is the requirement.  Rav Soloveitchik notes that an object used to praise Hashem is more closely associated with Hashem than an object used in the performance of another mitzvah.  Therefore, objects used in praise are treated more stringently.

It should be noted that not all requirements of beautification of the four species are absolute.  It is required to bind the lulav with the myrtle and willow branches.  However, if they are not bound together, the commandment is still fulfilled.  Even in the instance of the four species, some beautification requirements are absolute and others are not.  Rav Soloveitchik’s analysis suggests a basis for this distinction.  It follows from his analysis that those beautification requirements that relate to the object used in praise are absolute.  The object is not acceptable if it does not meet these requirements. Therefore, the dried out lulav is disqualified.  However, it seems that the binding is not a beautification of the objects.  Instead, the binding is a beautification because it facilitates the performance of the mitzvah.  In other words, the mitzvah can be performed less awkwardly through the binding.  Rashi seems to maintain that those beautifications that pertain to the object used in praise are essential.  Those that facilitate the activity of taking the lulav – the binding – enhance the performance of the mitzvah; but they are not absolute requirements.


Rav Soloveitchik’s analysis provides two important insights into the festival of Succot.  First, he provides a basic understanding of the mitzvah of the four species.  Rav Soloveitchik demonstrates that this mitzvah is essentially a process of offering praise to Hashem.


Second, Rav Soloveitchik explains the nature of our rejoicing on festivals, and especially on Succot.  Our rejoicing is an expression of our appreciation of our relationship with Hashem.  For this reason, it is expressed through the offering of praise.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Succah 29a.

[2] Sefer Shemot 15:2.

[3] Mesechet Shabbat 133:b.

[4] Mesechet Succah 11b.

[5] Tosefot, Mesechet Succah 29b.

[6] Mesechet Gitten 20a.

[7] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Harerai Kedem , volume 1, p 222.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Lulav 7:9-10.

[9] Sefer VaYikra 23:40.

[10] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Lulav 8:12-13.

[11] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Harerai Kedem , volume 1, p 222.